It is difficult to think or talk about Smash without considering the context of its much-awaited arrival to television. Despite what still-new NBC honcho Robert Greenblatt says about the series’ ultimate impact on the fate of the Peacock network, Smash is a supremely important property. In fact, I would say that this is the most important series premiere of the season (sorry, X Factor) and probably one of the more important premieres in recent memory. NBC is desperate for any kind of substantial success and since critics got ahold of Smash’s pilot back in the spring, there’s been an unbelievable amount of talk about how the series could alter the trajectory of a network that’s in a truly terrible state (perhaps the worst ever for a broadcast network, right?).
And even though NBC’s continued failure gives me a whole lot of fodder for sarcastic tweets and long pieces here on TVS, I want NBC to succeed. And even though I’m smart enough to know that good ratings for one series cannot single-handedly reanimate a basically-dead network, I want Smash to succeed. Ultimately, I think the series will succeed from a ratings stand-point, at least in the first season. But after watching the pilot episode twice now, I’m still not entirely convinced Smash is going to be as creatively successful.
Don’t get me wrong: This is the kind of pilot NBC needs to be airing. Move the Glee comparisons aside for a minute because there’s not quite like Smash on broadcast television right now. This is so obviously an adult program, for adult audiences. I don’t mean that in a pay cable context where “adult” means all sorts of boobs and sexposition. Instead, Smash feels like the kind of property you would expect NBC to steward onto the airwaves, the kind of property NBC likes to talk about when they’re going on and on about their history and the prestige of the 10 p.m. drama slot and the kind of property that 30 Rock makes fun of them for not having over the last decade.*
*As I’ve said before, NBC had two great dramas they didn’t quite know what to do with in Friday Night Lights and Southland, but the point remains the same.
The phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think about the Smash pilot is well-produced. Steven Spielberg apparently had some real interest and thus impact on the development of the property, but even if he didn’t do squat, Smash still exudes professionalism. Michael Mayer’s direction is rock-solid and all the performances seem, to a person with no real interest in theater, quite good. The cast is filled with recognizable performers from television, film, theater and music and they’re all generally doing fine work in the pilot.
My only real issue with the pilot is the writing. Theresa Rebeck has had a great deal of success in her career and she is clearly a great choice to be the lead writer for a series like this. Most of the pilot affirms Rebeck’s abilities. The story is clear, concise and always propulsive. Every single one of the characters is a basic-level archetype with little meat, but A.) This is a pilot and B.) The story works well when reinforcing the traditional beats of those archetypes anyway. By the end of the pilot, Rebeck’s script has done its job: We’ve been introduced to the characters, gotten enough indication of what their basic motivations are and the structure of the story is in place. Too many pilots today fail to accomplish even these goals and the script is well-supported by solid direction, performances and music.
However, when Rebeck’s script moves away from the character “types” and tries to flesh out the personal lives of the characters, Smash stalls out. Debra Messing’s Julia is trying to adopt a kid but she doesn’t seem remotely interested in it – or her teenage son – and Brian d’Arcy James is stuck in the thankless role of the nagging husband. Moreover, the tension between Julia and her partner Tom’s assist Ellis is really pretty dumb. The Ellis character is at first too dumb and then later perhaps just purposefully calculating and although I understand the desire in adding as much drama to the production as possible, the character (and the performance) feels like an unnecessary addition to a story that already has all sorts of in-fighting and competition. The preview clips at the end of the free version of the pilot suggests that Ellis isn’t going anywhere, nor is the baby storyline and well, that’s just unfortunate.
This is where Smash has a challenging road ahead. Pilots work just fine with archetypal characters, especially when their portrayed by great actors like Messing, Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport or supported with well-picked music like Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty are (though Hilty’s good on her own, to be fair). But to succeed creatively in the long-term, the series needs to move beyond typical behind the scenes drama and avoid poorly-written stories with characters that aren’t exactly necessary. From the pilot, the audience isn’t given the same kind of choice that the producers of the Marilyn production are. We’re basically told that McPhee’s Karen is a diamond in the rough and that this is going to be her journey to the top. That’s fine, I’ll watch that story, but Smash seems so dedicated to telling that obvious story about the green, Midwestern ingénue “making it big” amid sleazy directors, snotty writers and disapproving parents. Television gives you the opportunity to step outside those obvious stories or those typical character constructions and with this cast, it seems misguided to cling to the obvious or the typical.
Of course, there are moments in the pilot where I think Smash and Theresa Rebeck are capable of more compelling storytelling, most notably the scenes where the two competing women are on-screen with some sort of parallel in mind. I know people really love the last performance number and for good reason, but I think my favorite scene was the quick beat with Karen and Ivy discussing the call-back with their families. Those moments go a long way in getting the audience invested in characters and it is intriguing that the series is avoiding making Ivy a straight-up villain (at least so far). Honestly, Ivy seems more interesting, which is byproduct of both the writing and disparity between the two actress’ performances.
Ultimately, Smash isn’t the best pilot of the new season and I don’t think it has a substantial upside for out and out greatness.* However, it is a very good, solid pilot and even if the character issues don’t get worked out for a while, I can’t imagine the series falling that far either. Smash is a populist, mainstream program in a good way. NBC needs more of these.
*Oddly, I think this series will be more consistent than Glee, but lack the kind of epic highs Ryan Murphy’s scatterbrained series can reach. That is ultimately probably better for an older audience and I’m pretty sure as long as Smash never does a Rocky Horror Tribute or has Ivy send Karen to a crack house to avoid an audition, it will be OK.